Friday, October 23, 2015

More on Korsmeyer on Food as Fine Art

I have posted previously on Korsmeyer on food as art but am not sure I have done full justice to her position.  I think that one of reasons Korsmeyer rejects food as fine art is that efforts in previous centuries to treat it as such were often based largely on piggy-backing on other art forms.  So, for example, she includes an illustration from the 17th century of decorative carved fruits and from the 19th century of elaborate decorative concoctions by Careme, and writes, "we may also note an objection to decorative food that points to an adventitious element to the representational capacities of food:  the examples of symbolic function in food [discussed in her book] are largely the result of visual manipulation" (126) where the artist treats the food in the same way a sculptor would treat marble. Korsmeyer notes that this objection comes from Larry Shiner and that she herself does not think this shows "poverty of symbolic possibility for food." It simply shows that eating involves more than one sense.  But the "objection" nonetheless may be a motivating factor in her rejecting food as fine art.  I think the problem is little different from problems in other media, for example in film, where early forms often imitated other art forms, whereas as the medium developed it came to have forms that were more its own.  If we look at the visual appearance of dishes in contemporary high-end restaurants we find that they are no longer crudely representational or imitative of architecture, sculpture or other art forms, although they may have some affinities with these.  The idea is that the form, color and texture of the presentation should combine with the various tastes to present an experience overall.  As John Dewey would say, it is the experience that is the work of art, not the physical object taken alone and isolated from context.  I also think that, as I have argued previously, the gastronomical experience includes a multiplicity of elements including the place of dining, the service and even the background sounds and smells. These various elements are hierarchically arranged, so that the center of the experience is the food on the plate, and the peripheries, such as the architectural setting, are intended to enhance that experience.  (This can go either way, of course.  An architecture enthusiast might go to the restaurant mainly for the architecture, the food serving mainly as an enhancing periphery.) Even the clothes fashions of the other diners can be part of the overall aesthetic experiences (that one is for you, Karen), although this is much less under the control of the artist (i.e. the chef or the restaurateur) and would not be included in the judgment of the performance.  I say "performance" since I think of the art of food presentation as a performance art where it is the event that is to be judged in the end, not just the individual object that is consumed.  

Although Korsmeyer thinks that food can meet some of Goodman's "symptoms of the aesthetic" including "exemplification" and "relative repleteness" she thinks that there are important differences between food and the fine arts, that the concept of art as fine art is "a poor category to capture the nature of foods and their consumption." (141) There is some confusion here, however.  She lists fine arts as "paintings, sculptures, poems and symphonies." Let's take painting.  This is a vast category including much that is not fine art.  Painting refers to paint on some support such as canvas or wall.  It can include graffiti art, children's murals, kitsch seascapes in Carmel, works by Thomas Kinkade, and painted works by David Hockney.  Painting is a somewhat different kind of concept than "sculpture" which seems to be limited to three-d constructions that are works of art, although there are many three-d art works that are arguably not sculptures. Moreover, there are a vast number of three-d figures, for example in religious shops or in tourist galleries, that could be seen as sculptures but not as fine art. The concept of fine art does not capture of nature of foods and their consumption because not all food is fine art just as not all painting and not all things called sculpture are fine art.  

Korsmeyer makes the interesting point that food and art do not have parallel histories.  I have perhaps not taken this point seriously enough in the past.  It certainly is true, and no one will contest it, that food and art have different histories.  The art books appear together in one part of our libraries, the food books in another part. But history has a way of bringing things together that were previously apart and vice versa.  Gardens were once considered to be fine art and then began to lose that status in the 19th century, becoming a kind of adjunct to architecture.  Then, in the second half of the 20th century some gardens began to gain the status of fine art again, often when the garden was designed by someone well known as a sculptor, for example Robert Irwin's garden at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.  Although I agree with Korsmeyer that food has its own history, I also believe that food has been converging with painting, sculpture and performance art in recent years, particularly in high-end restaurants, so that some food productions can now partake in and draw from those traditions, although again, only if this is done with care and not as a form of inauthentic piggy-backing.  Something similar has happened in fashion design.  

I think that Korsmeyer's inability to see great restaurant food as fine art is partly because of her focus on other kinds of food presentation, ones associated with festival aesthetics.  She says:  "I hope that the examples of ritual and ceremonial eating and the complex situations in which foods and tastes exemplify metaphorical properties lay to rest the idea that tasting and eating are to be appreciated only for sensuous enjoyment. The uses of foods and rink for religious and commemorative purposes clearly foster, even force, reflection on the meaning of the event taking place....unlike music or other fine art, however, this sort of not a mark of greatness for food as food."  (142) What is left out is that great restaurant food exemplifies metaphorical properties in complex ways (often drawing on many of the meanings associated with food in these other contexts) and fuses these with sensuous enjoyment.   It might be thought that fine restaurant food is just for sensuous enjoyment, and it is true that sensuous enjoyment is the main focus of the dining experience, but this enjoyment is enhanced significantly by the various other properties metaphorically exemplified and the various other stories told.  The concept of "food as food" can be distorting of the issue insofar as it isolates food from its complex meaning content, flattens it out, as it were.  It would be like those who say that art should only be addressed in terms of the isolated object, art as art, and not in terms of any contextual considerations which may enhance its meaning.  

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